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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

How to Stay Resilient as Freedom Declines

For those who value freedom the coming years are likely to be challenging. We can all meet that challenge better by increasing our resiliency.

How are you going to feel when you wake up on November 9th and either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is the next president-elect of the United States? Although many of us might predict that we will feel awful, our prediction is probably wrong.

Most of us discount our ability to bounce back from hard times and cope with problems.

Psychologists Tim Wilson and Daniel Gilbert, in their paper Affective Forecasting, found that people were much less impacted than they thought they would be by the 2000 election between Al Gore and George Bush. Bush supporters were far less happy than they thought they would be when Bush was elected; when Gore lost, his supporters were far less unhappy than they had predicted they would be.

Impact bias is what psychologists call the human mind’s tendency “to overestimate the emotional impact an event will have on us, either positively or negatively.”  In their book Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, psychology professors Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener observe, “A major reason we overestimate the impact of the things that will happen to us just around the bend is that we underestimate our own resilience. Most of us discount our ability to bounce back from hard times and cope with problems.”

For those who value freedom the coming years are likely to be challenging. We can all meet that challenge better by increasing our resiliency. Resiliency is a renewable resource; if we are currently low on resiliency, we can get more of it.  Here are three ways to increase resiliency in our current polarized political environment.

Loosen Your Grip on Your Thoughts

In her book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, Winnifred Gallagher explains psychology’s “negative bias theory.” Simply, “we pay more attention to unpleasant feelings such as fear, or anger and sadness because they’re simply more powerful than the agreeable sort.”

Gripping our negative thinking is like grinding cut glass in our closed fist and then wondering why we are bleeding.

As bad news rolls in in the coming years, it will be natural to have thoughts such as: “Freedom is lost for good.” “The economy will never recover from these terrible policies.” “I fear for my children and grandchildren.” It will be common to have angry thoughts of blame towards politicians who have, over many decades, allowed the principles that support freedom and prosperity to erode.

We can have those thoughts, but we don’t have to allow those thoughts to have us. Research shows that trying to suppress unwanted thoughts leads to more unwanted thoughts. But we don’t have to fuse with our thinking in this way. According to physician and therapist Russ Harris, in his book The Happiness Trap, when we fuse with our thinking, we give these thoughts our full attention and they become all-consuming.

We may find ourselves spending hours a day reading articles about why Trump or Clinton is a terrible person doing terrible things to the country.  We may frequently check our Facebook feed and feel satisfaction when someone posts a denunciation that confirms our thinking.  

We can defuse our thinking and simply allow our upsetting thoughts to pass harmlessly through our heads. We don’t need to block our thinking or change our thinking; we just need to release our grip on our thinking.

Gripping our negative thinking is like grinding cut glass in our closed fist and then wondering why we are bleeding. Release the glass, and the hand will begin to heal. Release negative thoughts, and new and more positive thoughts will naturally arise.

Some people believe it’s a good thing to focus on their negative thinking. They tell me, “After all, why else would I be motivated to work to change the situation?” Often, I hear this basic confusion. The truth is, the more you are consumed by negative thinking, the less responsive you are. Why? Your mind is already occupied by the negative thoughts; there simply is no bandwidth left with which to respond to life based upon your highest values. Negative thinking lowers your resiliency.

In her book Positivity, psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson notes, “the most pivotal difference between those with and without resilient personality styles was their positivity.” Positivity doesn’t mean having your head in the sand, it consists of a “whole range of positive emotions — from appreciation to love, from amusement to joy, from hope to gratitude, and then some.”

Live Your Highest Values

Political realities may be unpleasant, but so what? What does that have to do with our moment by moment decision to live by our highest values?

The values by which we live our lives in the coming years will help determine the future of liberty.

Can a President Clinton or President Trump impact our decisions to value honesty, accountability, responsibility, trustworthiness, or curiosity?  Can the president impact our decision to continue to learn? To be grateful? To be generous?  

In his book Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, psychologist Steven Hayes provides a useful definition of values as “intentional qualities that join together a string of moments into a meaningful path.” Values are “unfolding actions.” “If they are something you do (or the quality of something you do), they never end. You are never finished.”

For example, if one of your values is to be a loving person, “this doesn’t mean that as soon as you love someone for a few months you are done… There is more loving to do — always.”

In the same way, valuing freedom is a direction for the path we take. Human progress has never steadily climbed without interruptions. However, the values by which we live our lives in the coming years will help determine the future of liberty.

Increased levels of resiliency are generated by living from our highest values. If we get trapped by our thinking about the political reality in which we are living, we begin to live our life based on our feelings and not on our values and principles.

If we don’t understand that feelings are transitory and unreliable, feelings can occupy our mind and depress our resiliency to life’s challenges.

In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Duke Senior, his throne usurped, has been exiled into the Forest of Arden. Even so, he allows, life is not all bad, for “sweet are the uses of adversity.” Duke Senior does not say he’s glad for adversity; but he prefers to use his adverse circumstances wisely, rather than to spend his life complaining.

Respect that Others See the World Differently

Getting upset that others “don’t get it” reduces your capacity to be resilient.

After election day you will encounter colleagues, friends, and family members who are happy about the results. Most of these people are not stupid or on the government’s payroll.  Some of the people we criticize for their political views may be more responsible, more productive, and happier than we are. You can silently or publicly berate them, or you can take another path. You can be curious about their beliefs that drive how they see the world. Your respectful curiosity will help you be a more effective communicator of your own ideas.

Everyone interprets the events of life differently, or as educator Jane Nelsen puts it in her book Serenity, through “the filters of his or her unique [thought system]. Everyone has personal memories, or interpretations and beliefs that act like filters through which present events are seen.”

If we understand that interpreting the world differently is normal, we could be more curious about how others see the world.  As we truly listen to others with compassion and respect, others are more likely to listen to us. I recommend that you become a student of the beliefs of other people. Everyone thinks they are seeing the world logically, and only by addressing their beliefs with respect will they ever change their mind.

Getting upset that others “don’t get it” dampens the spirit, corrodes relationships, and reduces your capacity to be resilient to life.

Remember, in America’s DNA is the idea that everyone has the potential to lead a responsible and happy life. Today, some may not understand the principles that promote liberty and prosperity; but increase your resiliency today and perhaps you will play a part in helping them understand those principles tomorrow

  • Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. 

    To receive Barry's essays subscribe at his Substack, Mindset Shifts.

    His essays also appear at the American Institute for Economic Research, Intellectual Takeout, Learn Liberty, The Epoch Times and many other publications. Barry’s essays have been translated into many languages, most frequently Spanish and Portuguese. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership.

    Barry holds a Ph.D. in economics from Rutgers University and a B.S. in mathematical statistics from CCNY.